In the week where it was announced that the 2024 Austrian national championships for heptathlon would be included in the world-famous Götzis Hypomeeting, British combined eventers have expressed their frustration at UK Athletics’ treatment of their discipline via an online petition.
The petition, organised by heptathlete Jordanna Morrish on behalf of British combined eventers, highlights the uncertainty facing decathletes and heptathletes in preparing for their national championships. The move follows an email she and fellow heptathletes sent to UKA in October, which said:
“The combined events community is saddened and angry having been informed that our events will not be included in the schedule for the UK Indoor Championships in February 2024, and is apparently unlikely to be included in the Outdoor Championships in 2024 either.”
The email goes onto say:
“There are currently no substantive domestic opportunities to acquire world ranking points for combined events (above category F, where the maximum number of placing points is 10).”
This is the latest development which seems to demonstrate a significant cognitive dissonance in the UK around combined events.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland has in its current ranks one of the greatest heptathletes of all time, the 2019 and 2023 world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The 2000 and 2012 Olympic heptathlon champions, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis-Hill respectively, are familiar faces on BBC athletics coverage. Discussion on the greatest athletes in British history will inevitably always come back round to double Olympic champion and former decathlon world-record holder Daley Thompson.
But the British athletics system seems to simultaneously revel in the success of its combined eventers, while failing to give their successors the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. Most recently, UKA set a domestic qualification standard for the 2023 World Championships in the heptathlon at a level that excluded rising star Jade O’Dowda, the Commonwealth bronze medallist and in the top dozen in the world going into the championships. A US athlete with a lower PB than Jade, and whom the Brit had beaten in April in Italy, went on to finish eighth in the heptathlon in Budapest, collecting valuable ranking points towards Olympic qualification. At the time, O’Dowda’s competitors expressed astonishment that she wasn’t considered eligible for selection.
In recent years, there have been instances where British combined events titles have been awarded in the same competition as individual events, in 2021 and again in 2022. For fans and spectators making a weekend of the championships, they get to follow the fortunes of individual athletes over two days. Furthermore, combined eventers around the world looked on in envy as a delirious stadium of athletics fans were transfixed by home favourite Harry Kendall, competing in the decathlon pole vault at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.
But little seems to have been done to capitalise on that exposure in 2022. For the athletes who have expressed their frustration via the new petition, it is about more than the inclusion of the combined events championships within the main title event. Separate combined events championships are not in themselves unusual. But British combined eventers cite the lack of clarity, the lack of promotion, and the overall lack of support in their representation.
The combined eventers’ online petition lists a litany of concerns, including:
- Lack of prior notification about the removal of combined eventers from the main UK Championships 2023
- A last-minute substitution event with inadequate advertising, promotion and preparation time
- Spectators forced to leave the indoor event prematurely, affecting performances
- Unfair blame on athletes for poor outcomes, disregarding the adverse circumstances
Morrish adds to that on her Instagram account, stating “we currently have no information about whether there will be a UK combined events champs for combined events, either within the main event or separately, and UKA have failed to provide further information when asked.”
The petition includes a clear ask of UK athletics, to commit to inclusion of combined events in the main UK championships in 2024, or to host an appropriate alternative event, with associated planning and promotion.
The importance of national championships has been magnified by World Athletics’ decision in 2019 to introduce a ranking system for qualification for major championships. The change means that the competition at which an athlete achieves a score plays a significant role in their ranking.
National championships, particularly outdoors, offer a valuable rankings boost for athletes, and can leverage scores into strong qualification positions. For British athletes who can’t yet command the invitations to high-ranked meets extended to the likes of KJT and O’Dowda in recent years, nationals are critical to help them progress and keep pace with their competitors in the race for championships qualification.
When there’s no clarity about when combined events nationals will take place, and when clarity does come in the form of a last-minute arrangement in an empty stadium, it is hard to see how the next KJT, or the next Daley, can find their break.
In contrast, this week the Austrian Federation announced that the 2024 national championships for heptathlon would be incorporated into the legendary Götzis Hypomeeting, commonly acknowledged as one of the world’s best athletics events for fans and athletes.
Austrian heptathletes will enjoy the best quality of competition outwith an Olympic or World championships at their nationals in 2024, the envy of every combined event squad in the world, as well as their teammates in individual events. The men’s decathlon, which is currently at a lower standard in Austria, will take place the following weekend alongside age group championships and an open heptathlon.
Meanwhile, the combined eventers in the land of KJT, Ennis-Hill, Lewis and Thompson can only dream of such support.
In response to the petition, a UKA spokesperson said:
“The UKA Combined Events (CE) Championships were until recently held in tandem with the England Championships, however, in 2021 and 2022 UKA piloted holding an integrated UK CE Championship within the overall UK Athletics Championships. Unfortunately, the challenge of merging the respective competition timetables proved unsustainable with extended days impacting negatively on athletes, officials and spectator experience. In addition, the overall UKA Championships also incorporates the major championship trials for each year which adds a further layer of timetable complexity to ensure a fair competition schedule for all athletes.
“Taking into account all these factors with the Advisory Panel it was agreed to revert to the previous format of integration with the England Championships with the long term aim of developing a more established Combined Events ‘festival’ experience in future years, and increasing the entry number for this event group.”
You can view the combined eventers’ online petition here.